Do you know where your employees are working?

Telework programs can provide myriad benefits if companies get the appropriate policies in place

Enabling employees to work from anywhere can save companies time and money while boosting productivity. Here’s how to do it right.

It’s time for ad hoc telework programs to be brought up to snuff.

Technology has enabled telework programs to evolve beyond images of people dialing up in pajamas to remote workers tapping advanced collaboration tools that increase productivity and ensure business continuity. In some cases, disaster recovery plans have spawned well-structured and documented telework programs. But at the majority of companies, there are no formal telework policies in place, even as more and more workers go mobile.

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“Telework is not just working from home; it is working from a location that is not the corporate office. Almost everyone today teleworks in one way or another,” says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition. “Half of the workers know they do it, close to another half don’t realize they do it when they check e-mail from a hotel room or a BlackBerry, for instance, and a small percentage of certain types of employees might not do it at all. But easily 75% of companies don’t have official telework policies, despite employees working remotely often, which could be a problem.”

Here are 10 simple steps that can help organizations advance their telework programs from ad hoc to admirable.

1. Survey employeesThe best place to start when establishing policies for remote work is with employees. Companies should survey staff to understand who would want to work remotely and why. Also consider the environment to determine if the type of positions could be supported remotely.

“It is critical for an organization to ask employees if they are interested in telework and what they would like to see in such a program,” says Cindy Auten, general manager for Telework Exchange. “Such surveys also help to lay a foundation for what degree of telework a company can support. The responses will help organizations establish a program suited to their employees and work environment.”

2. Perform cost analysisThe benefits of telework can range from lessened real estate and power costs for employers to fewer dollars spent commuting for employees. But depending on the business, the benefits of implementing a telework program might not immediately outweigh the costs. That’s why companies should invest some time upfront understanding how they can save money and increase productivity, experts say.

“The main driver for a successful, policy-based telework program is often the cost savings a company can realize,” says Lawrence Imeish, principal consultant for Dimension Data. “But companies need to understand how they can save costs, for instance in real estate, and implement the needed steps to achieve those savings.”

For example, if 10% of the workforce will be working remotely, companies could invest up to 10% less in corporate real estate or cut back on LAN expenditures, and instead invest that capital in technology to support remote work.

“Telework can become valuable and strategic if companies follow through with a program from start to finish,” Imeish says. “Understanding there could be savings but not changing investment plans could lessen the cost-savings benefit of telework.”

3. Get management supportOne would think that positive employee feedback and potential cost-savings would guarantee management support for a remote work program, but telework advocates must secure executive buy-in before moving the policies to the next level. (See related story, “Five signs your telework program is a bust.”) 

“There are some in management that simply don’t buy into telework and can’t easily be swayed,” Wilsker says. “I have seen successful telework programs come to a screeching halt when new management takes over. Take, for instance, AT&T.”

Program advocates must also provide ongoing updates showing the success or challenges of the telework program, helping to maintain management support. “Businesses change, conditions change. Ongoing assessments will help management understand how telework continues to support current business operations,” Wilsker adds.

4. Document policies

For many, telework programs can be as simple as working from home during a snowstorm or as involved as sharing shifts with others and rotating remote work days based on multiple schedules. Either can work, but documented policies will help organizations avoid confusion or problems when something goes awry.

“Telework is a program, and like all programs, the better it is developed and documented, the better it will work,” says Ben Rothke, a New York-city based senior security consultant with BT Professional Services. “Successful teleworking programs don’t just happen. They are the results of significant planning, testing and training.”

Documentation also can help avoid upset when employees and cultures clash over remote workers. Not all jobs are suited for remote access, and companies need to establish clear guidelines regarding which positions can support telework and how often.

“A prison guard obviously cannot be a teleworker. Companies must pick and choose which workers are eligible, communicate it clearly and keep it documented to avoid future upset over restrictions,” Dimension Data’s Imeish says.

5. Acquire technologyGranting permission to work remotely isn’t going to guarantee a successful telework program. Remote workers will also need the tools and technology to enable them to work productively in other environments and collaborate with co-workers as though they were sitting in the next cube. (See related story, “Secure telework without a VPN.”) 

Instant messaging, e-mail, Web cameras, video conferencing and Web conferences are a few collaboration tools that could enable remote workers to operate as though they were in the office. And technologies such as routers that enable home workers to segregate corporate and personal traffic can help reduce security risks and speed helpdesk calls.

“Home users with their kids on the same link could actually become quite the nightmare for support,” Imeish says. “You can’t just send people home to work without providing them the right tools to be productive and to mitigate risk to the company.”

It can also help to standardize on technology. For instance, instead of having employees use whatever they find, companies should select a few options for home workers and mobile workers. Employees can choose from the options, which will enable the company to better secure its environment and helps support teams to more easily address remote worker issues.

“You don’t want users tapping any technology they have. To make telework successful, companies should standardize on VPNs and encrypted tunnels, for instance.” Imeish says.

Also be sure to establish early who pays for the home office equipment or the local broadband connection, Wilsker adds. Companies could offset costs with telework, but employees should not be incurring additional costs because they agree to work remotely.

“It’s not a case in which the employee pays to work from home. Organizations need to establish the rules for who pays for what and how much is in the budget for telework technology,” he says.

6. Secure dataCorporate intellectual property and client data, for instance, also need to be considered when moving work outside of the office. In the same vein as segregating traffic and determining eligible positions, companies must understand what information employees have access to and ensure if working remotely the data is always secure.

“Are the files secure in the remote location or are they lying around someone’s house? Is the employee logging out of secure systems or leaving applications open?” Telework Exchange’s Auten asks. “There are too many stories of laptops gone missing with critical data already. Companies must set strong security policies and ensure they can be enforced.”

7. Require trainingJust as employees often must be trained on a new phone system or e-mail application, experts advise companies to mandate telework training. Learning remote access technologies and understanding security policies are just two reasons organizations should require employees who wish to work remotely to complete telework training programs.

“Employee screening and training – including managers that may not know how to manage remote workers – should be mandatory for those involved in the telework program” Wilsker says. “Understanding how to communicate and keep the lines open is essential for telework to succeed. Training on collaboration tools and the policies around staying in touch with the office is critical.”

Companies can even offer a resource guide of sorts for those employees who telework. Create a checklist for employees to follow daily, weekly and monthly to keep the program on track, Auten adds.

“When organizations are supporting telework, they should review the program on a regular recurring basis. Some kinks might need to be worked out and employees re-trained over time,” she says.

8. Measure employee performanceTo ensure employees remain productive when they’re remote, companies can baseline worker output prior to telework and measure performance following the transition.

While some managers might measure work by attendance, experts say there are better metrics to understanding how much gets done outside of the office.

“If a company is focused on output rather than process, they are going to care about presence,” Imeish says. “But it can be a difficult premise to overcome.”

For instance, instant messaging programs can be configured to show when users are idle, but if that feels too Big Brother for some organizations, policies can be used to prove presence – remotely.

“Managers can require workers check in at certain times, provide work progress updates and show results,” Imeish says. “It’s best to define success criteria upfront and measure results as you go. Companies should get a little bit more productivity out of telework.”

The productivity responsibility doesn’t just fall to employees either. While many in management might worry about under-achieving workers, experts says often the opposite happens. Auten says managers must be in tune with employee performance and try to help them sustain a work-life balance, despite being able to work 24-7.

“Managers have to be very accountable for their employees’ work output. Telework requires a work-life balance, and a program can go south if employees aren’t stepping away from their desk to take lunch or logging off at a reasonable hour,” she says. “Telework can quickly lead to employee burnout if a balance is not established.”

9. Provide supportNot only does the remote work require technology to succeed, but helpdesk teams need to understand who works off-site and how to best support their needs. Because many remote workers also take advantage of flexible schedules, support might not be readily available at all hours.

“IT needs to know what people are working remotely and where. There will be different time zones and different work habits they will need to deal with, which could be seen as more work for support, but shouldn’t,” Wilsker says. “Insufficient tech support could hamper telework. Be transparent with IT so they can understand how to meet the needs of remote workers.”

10. Cultivate work cultureRemotes workers want to feel connected to their companies, despite being located elsewhere. Telework programs can leave employees feeling left out of the team, which is why program advocates must be sure to incorporate cultural needs into their plans.

“Technology can bridge the intimacy gap employees experience with telework to a certain degree. It won’t feel like they are in the office, but use video conferencing or inexpensive Web cameras to keep employees from feeling isolated,” Imeish says. “If you can’t help employees feel like part of a team, telework could result in turnover.”

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